Joe Tropea, co-director of Hit & Stay: A History of Faith and Resistance, discusses the acts of civil disobedience against the Vietnam War involving Catholic priests in Baltimore who destroyed draft cards with blood and napalm

Story Transcript

ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

As The Real News continues to expand its coverage in Baltimore, we’re going to discuss the history of Vietnam antiwar activism in the city.

Here to discuss this is Joe Tropea, codirector of a recent film about the subject, called Hit and Stay. Joe Tropea is a Baltimore-based historian, writer, editor, and filmmaker. He has been working in film for over a decade and a half and has worked as a writer and editor at Baltimore City Paper and the Maryland Historical Society. He is currently the curator of films and photographs at the Maryland Historical Society.

Thanks for joining us, Joe.


WORONCZUK: So, Joe, let’s start off by talking about what motivated you to make this film.

TROPEA: What motivated me to make the film? I was a student of history, I was getting a history degree, and I knew of the Catonsville Nine. I knew sort of who they were. But I wanted to learn more about them, so I decided to write a research paper on them. And as I got into that, that involved doing some oral histories. And as I get into that, I started thinking, this would really make a good full-length documentary.

So I looked around for who I knew that might come and film my interviews. And the person I landed on was the person who codirected the film with me, Skizz Cyzyk. He started out as just the camera guy, but a couple of years into it we realized–or I realized he was actually codirecting it with me, and then I just had to convince him the same thing.

So that’s what interested me in this topic, the fact that here in Baltimore I had access to all these people that had lived this history and they were willing to talk about it, basically.

WORONCZUK: And so some of the events that you start off with in the film, some of the acts of civil disobedience actually inspired some civil disobedience across the country. And it began with some groups, like the Baltimore Four, and you mentioned the Catonsville Nine. So let’s talk about the Baltimore Four. Who were they, and what act of civil disobedience did they commit?

TROPEA: The Baltimore Four were four activists–Father Phil Berrigan, Tom Lewis, who was an artist, David Eberhardt, who was a poet and teacher, and Father Jim Mengel, who–I think he worked in printing or publishing. Just a few blocks from where we sit, they entered the Baltimore Custom House in 1967. They went in with bottles of their own blood–mixed with other blood, ’cause they couldn’t draw enough blood from themselves. They put them in Mr. Clean bottles, hid them in their coats, entered the draft board that was at the Custom House, and asked to see draft records, which you could legally do–they were draft counselors. And they took out the bottles and poured blood on top of the draft records and basically stood there and waited to be arrested.

WORONCZUK: And, in fact, staying there waiting to be arrested is called hit-and-stay. That’s actually the–.

TROPEA: They called it a “stand-by” action. The title of our film is slightly anachronistic. It’s not exactly the term they used. But it’s the gist of what they did, yes.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And before and after these, after the Baltimore Four were arrested and went to trial, they actually committed another act of civil disobedience before they were convicted of any crime.

TROPEA: Right. People heard that the trial was going on, and others were inspired by what the four did. And they wanted to do another action, so some people from D.C. showed up for the trial and started talking, and they started forming a group that was going to basically do it again. And they ran the idea–somehow it was run past Phil Berrigan, who was eager to do another action right away, and they plotted the Catonsville Nine while that trial was going on. And they did it.

WORONCZUK: And what did they do in that action?

TROPEA: In that action they went to a draft board in Catonsville that was housed at a Knights of Columbus hall. They entered the draft board during regular business hours. They carried with them these wire baskets. And they filled the baskets with draft boards. They knew where the I-A files were stored in the office, ’cause they had visited the office prior to this. And they took them outside and burned them in the parking lot with homemade napalm that they’d made themselves.

WORONCZUK: Let’s actually take a look at a clip from your film of that action. …


WORONCZUK: So, Joe, what were the effects of these two acts of civil disobedience on public discourse, both in Baltimore and within the nation?

TROPEA: Well, in Baltimore and in the nation it shocked people. People couldn’t believe that they were seeing pictures of priests being arrested for committing this type of action.

Other people were completely inspired by what they did. And, in fact, they started having–members of the nine, while they were waiting for their trial, traveled the country talking to other people about what they did, hoping to inspire them, not really recruiting people, but hoping to inspire people, and people responded to it. Activists responded to what they did and they started to form new groups, like in Milwaukee–a group called the Milwaukee Fourteen did a very similar action to what they did in Catonsville. And from there it just sort of spread across the country. And it stuck mostly to the Midwest and Northeast.

But, yeah, people really responded to what they did.

WORONCZUK: So these acts of civil disobedience that were initially committed by religious leaders, members of the clergy, and laypeople, their influence after committing these acts eventually expanded to the youth, to more secular activists, and instead of targeting or burning draft cards, they ended up trying to bring attention to corporations’ role in the war effort.

TROPEA: Right. By 1969, younger people started getting involved in actions. There was an action in Boston that was a mix of older and younger folks.

But then, later on in that year, an action called the D.C. Nine formed, and that was with the sole intent of attacking Dow Chemical instead of a draft board. These activists wanted to draw attention to corporations that were profiting from the war in Vietnam, and the activists wanted to connect them to their protest. So they went into Dow Chemical’s offices and distributed their files out of a broken window.

WORONCZUK: So in the next part of the interview, we’ll discuss the government’s role, specifically the FBI, in attempting to discredit the antiwar movement.

So join us for part two of our interview with Joe Tropea on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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